Life is full decisions. Some large and small. Sometimes, as Robert Frost says, “Two roads diverge in the yellow wood…..” Our beloved state of Oklahoma is at a crossroads. In Frost’s poem, the seeming similarity of the two paths made for a tough choice. Our choice is more clearly drawn.
We could list the issues with Oklahoma school funding and the available options, but it all comes down to this. You can fool some of the people some of the time and all the people all the time but sometimes you are going to need to tick someone off and do the right, responsible thing. (Apologies to Abraham Lincoln.)
And in this case, it looks like (because I could be wrong) that the choice is between angering some powerful political interests or letting down anyone who supports public education in Oklahoma. This includes parents, teachers, other school employees, and an increasingly vocal segment of the business community. There are probably some grandparents in there as well. Many in education are past anger. They are into anguish and tears. The way to fix it is simple. Stop listening to flowery language from people who pretend like things are in any way acceptable in this situation.
The anti-school forces are not prepared to win in direct confrontation. They are being heard by those who make the decisions. Their public comments and activities mostly consist of diversionary activities made by organizations that represent them. They complain about transparency, but for the most part those funding their movement, and it is well funded, stay in the shadows and let others speak for them. Because no one can come directly and say, “ultimately we do not care if we fund schools.” Or “the promised boon from cutting taxes is just over the next hill.” Or, “We must rescue America from the evil powerful teachers unions.” They must build a false narrative about public schools and teachers and then take that down. It is one of the largest Straw Man games ever played in America. We know that teachers are not evil and the unions that represent them are not going to take over the world. They can’t even get decent funding passed in an obvious crisis in Oklahoma. Hardly the stuff of world domination.
Here is how it works: Demonize the teachers, teachers unions, administrators, and everything associated with public schools. Then “reform” the system by fundamentally taking it all apart. Some of the current crop of reformers are well-meaning. But the larger political agenda is not. It relies on ideas that sound good while taking public schools away from their communities.
The attempt to demonize teachers rests on getting people to believe that “teachers” in general are different from the ones in their community. They are not like the ones in their own neighborhoods, churches, and schools. The teacher teaching their own first grader is awesome! Not like the evil teachers everywhere else. But the “other teachers” are pretty much like “our teachers.” People are finally starting to see through this message and deny those who would paint all teachers with one awful brush stroke. (The push to get this message out is essential.) It defies logic that “our” local school has involved dedicated teachers while everywhere else in America teachers are a bunch of lazy socialist anti-American thugs. As with any group, there are some bad apples. But the news media publicizes in a big way stories of bad actors in the teaching profession and the forces opposing public schools lead an effort to brand all teachers as bad. (Except, of course, the ones you know who are awesome who must be an aberration. See how it works?) Here is one more clue that this is false: If teachers behaving badly was truly common place it would not be news. Sadly, the effort do destroy the reputation of teachers in this way has been so persistent for so long that many teachers have bought into the notion that “other teachers” are the problem. It is time to recognize this effort for what it is and turn it back forcefully.
Meanwhile, here in Oklahoma, the passage of SQ640, which seemed like a good idea to many at the time, has pretty much stymied any easy solution. There is some bipartisan agreement that we are no longer funding “core” services and money is going to have to come from somewhere. But there is no consensus among those tasked with the decision as to which way to go. So getting a solution passed is more difficult. But, as we say in music, that’s the gig. Those that become part of the solution will get my support. BUT if you are relying on external motivation to do what is right then it could be a long wait. You might not get all the love you deserve for doing the right thing. Do the right thing anyway. That also seems to be part of the gig.
Somehow you are going to have to throw every possible revenue measure ( maybe some new ones) out there on the table and keep adding things until you plug the budget hole. It is simple. (Easy and simple are not the same thing. This is plain)
And I am just saying that if it was me, if I was one of those deciding, I would not be able to live with myself if the legislature adjourned and I knew that I had subjected Oklahoma students, teachers (especially those just starting out with college loans and low pay), parents, and all of those who are impacted, sometimes to the point of economic desperation, to another year of misery, stress, poor health (because stress and poor health are evil twins) and no sleep. If you reject the “enemy teacher” narrative how could you feel differently? And it is not just teachers. There are good people in every area of government who are similarly being treated poorly. Because, well, you know, they are government employees. Just like the teachers.
To those serving in the legislature: I know that it is not easy to serve in elected office when things are this out of whack. But you can fix it this year and have a whole year to work on getting elected again, if that is what you want. The “cut your way to prosperity” plan did not work. It is a FAILED plan. You can cherry pick various statistics, but the current system that requires budget cuts year after year puts the lie to that. There is another law called “diminishing returns.” With each cut in income tax, the economic benefit, if any, is less. Over the years, Oklahoma has cut taxes during prosperous times and raised them in bad times. This current cycle is the first time the cuts have continued into the bad times and the results are no surprise to any thinking person. Sometimes, when you cut taxes the government actually gets less money and the economy begins to falter for lack of government services. You can see how this works in any given third world country.
We saw in the last presidential election (much to the irritation of campaign donors) that putting a lot of money behind a weak candidate (cough-Jeb Bush-cough) just might not work. Maybe this will be the case in the future in Oklahoma. Maybe not. But the rise of the United States as a world power just happens to match the rise of the public education system in the USA in the twentieth century. Maybe strong leadership doing the right thing will make you stronger personally, and hopefully politically as well. We have had #oklaed candidates win when outspent. I don’t think we have ever had an opponent of #oklaed spend less money and win.
Great nations and great states need great public schools. And stacking kids in classes with 30+ students is not part of that formula. We need great teachers. We need the best instructional materials. No one is asking for the highest funding in the USA. In fact, when we popped up to the mid 30’s after the passage of HB1017 things were actually quite good in Oklahoma schools for a few years, until the politics of the day began to leach the money back out. Our state budget no longer keeps up with inflation. We must reverse course.
I have one last thing. It is time for all parts of state government that are suffering from cuts to join together and support sound fiscal policy for all. Any tax increase that supports one will free up money for the others. Infighting with others that are not the responsible parties is not acceptable.
If this is worth sharing let me know and I will toss it up on my blog. I didn’t expect to be typing this long.